The Reina Sofia museum in Madrid has mounted a show for the summer, “Dada Ruso.” It's grand; it's good; although much of it is familiar to viewers of other Russian modernist art shows. But that is the aim of curator Margarita Tupitsyn's exhibition, to reframe that dense tumultuous past of cultural production during the Revolution's centennial years in terms of Dada. This Dada isn't the fun dada of its Fluxus grandchild. Rather it is manically serious, a “laughing past the graveyard” Dada of survivalist absurdism. Everything weird, deranged, aggressively crazy that artists might get up to fits into this Dada box.
The early 20th century modernism of Russia was radically heterodox, and grew up in a hothouse of social imperatives. It was an “everythingism”, not one of the classic movements we know from the west. Dada was a war baby, although a war differentially felt in Dada's different locales. Dada's centennial year was celebrated in 2016. A century ago, that was the second year of a round of appalling massacres. The Great War was nasty in Russia as well, where it led directly to the Revolution, and thereafter a civil war. There were social and political urgencies behind all the art of that time of a culture dyed in blood, frenetically dancing and laughing to forget.
“Wait,” I hear. “1916? Who decides?”
As in all things to do with vintage modernist art, it's the Swiss of course. The Cabaret Voltaire Dada-grounded museum called it. That date is hooked to the refugees/draft refusers who gathered there and were organized by Tristan Tzara. (This blog is named for one of his ventures.) The Cabaret Voltaire house museums continues strong today in the Dada spirit. Reverend Billy and his gang were there last year, performing “Trump Depression Hotline”. We're sad now, but we will be more sad.
New York Dada preceded Zurich, but it developed less in the shadow of European war than in the warm waters of private patronage – the Arensbergs, Alfred Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas, etc.. The New York Dadas swam amidst a public curious about that weird modern art and the bohemian ways of those who made it, a public whose children were not yet being slaughtered for no good reason.
A key thing Margarita Tupitsyn did in “Dada Ruso” was include a bunch of women. Works by Varvara Stepánova, Liubov Popova, the short-lived Olga Rozanova and others were hanging alongside the canonical men. But they're not fun loving, not like Sophie Taeuber-Arp with her puppets, nor even Hannah Höch. These gals were serious on this ride, doing cubist, suprematist, futurist, and finally constructivist work alongside the men. Every one in every photo is glowering at the camera.
“Dada Ruso” is not the Guggenheim's massive 1992 "The Great Utopia: the Russian and Soviet avant-garde, 1915-1932". But it's got more film in it, and lots of Mayakovsky, which is always great. We're closer to Russia here, so loans are likely cheaper.
As part of the activities around the show, my friend Gloria G. Durán was speaking down in the basement as part of an unusual series – “The Radical Heterodoxy of Dada,” directed by Servando Rocha.
Gloria's talk was called “Dandydada: Cupleteras, Performers and Other Things from a Possible National Dada”. She wrote a book called “Dandysmo y contragénero: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Djuna Barnes, Florine Stettheimer, Romaine Brooks” examining women of or with the Dadas. (Dadas? Romaine Brooks? Well, the dandified subject of her painting “Una, Lady Troubridge” is wearing a monocle, like Tristan Tzara, and she has with her two Dadahunds, so....)
Gloria's talk was dense and delightful – dense because she was navigating the strange waters of early 20th century nervous afflictions during the rise of psychiatry as they were interpolated into comic songs, and how these comic songs expressed different cultural positions of women, and all this in relation to Dada – and delightful because she was accompanied by a comic singer, Laura Inclán, who performed some of these songs in a convincing alto voice. Ms. Inclán herself is Dadaistic by marriage, as she is the partner of the great clown Leo Bassi, founder of the Iglesia Patólica (as in "pataphysical").
The song form she explicated is “cuplé,” short comedic songs with limerick-like verses. The popularity of the form in Madrid was coincident with Dada, and the vogue of psychoanalysis. Some of the songs took off from characterizations of neurasthenia (today understood as chronic fatigue), with a performer languidly swanning about, perhaps punctuated with epileptic attacks. Others were in the vein of “sicalíptica” – a weird invented word, based on a mishearing, but later etymologized as “From gr. Sykon, vulva + aleiptikos, which is good for rubbing” – frankly erotic, with a tint of mischief or malice. Oddly, Salvador Dalí continued to use the word, its meaning by then forgotten, merely connoting some kind of mysterious oddity, in Spanish TV appearances in the 1960s.
Some of the classic cuplés were performed by Gloria's friend:
“La Vaselina” concerns a bride who is given a jar of the lubricant for her wedding night, and faux-innocently inquires, “What could this be for?”
Here's a later version:
She also performed "La Pulga". Here's a TV version of the song, with audience interaction.
When I queried her, Gloria said that this 1917 cuplé was one of her favorite:
Also called “cuplés” today are the raucous satirical songs of the carnival groups of Cádiz noted for their wild costumes. The groups are nearly all men, and their songs are often political in content. Here's one in which "Vikings" are wearing kitchenware, rather like the Baroness Elsa:
In terms of the show, all of this falls into the zone of popular culture, widely seen as transient whereas art is if not eternal, at least longer lasting. Art makes the rules. Popular culture chases the whims of fashion. Art is for the ages, pop is for money. But modernism was all about busting modes, and the rebels used everything at hand.
The organizer of the course at the museum, Servando Rocha seems to be something of a Spanish Stewart Home. A thinker of "antropofagia" and the "cannibal faction," his view of Dada is dark:
"The dadaists fed on the faces of the primitive, of the desires without repression, of psychoanalysis and the occult. They vindicated, in an aggressive tone, the 'dictatorship of the spirit' while embracing the revolution of the soviets. Dadaism became strong because of its determination to walk through the darkness between which it finally found a convulsive, unstable and unpredictable region, where dreams and violence were confused with those ungovernable moods."
He sees Dada as a self-annihilating movement, a kind of artistic suicide, [NOTE: Dada-Anti-Dada] which is why it can come back to life so often in later periods. Yet very much in political terms.
In a 2013 interview he speaks about his book La facción caníbal. Historia del vandalismo ilustradoes:
“Jacobins, hooligans, psychopaths, dada, surrealism, the lyricists, punk ... The cannibal faction traces a historical journey through vandalism as vanguard.... Enlightened vandalism has always sought to create a counter-power, to desacralize culture.”
Since that interview, Rocha's press, La Felguera, has continued to crank it out, elaborating his thems. They publish the magazine Agente Provocador, and books by Alan Moore (not me).
In addition to producing the course, Rocha led Dada tours of Madrid during “Dada Ruso,” including the sites of work of prolific writer and first class character Ramón Gómez de la Serna. As the resident king of avant gardists de la Serna received visiting Paris Dadaist Tristan Tzara on a visit in 1929. Tzara made a dramatic entrance at Serna's tertullia (discussion group), the notorious Sacred Crypt in the cafe Pombo.
De la Serna in his office, 1930. Serna used the dense collages of images he made to think up themes and lines for his newspaper columns. (Today the actual site is part of the Hotel Wellington, but the office has been recreated in Museo de Arte Contemporáneo at Conde Duque in Madrid. Pic: Archivo Alfonso AGA; in elmundo.es)
As for the women....
Well, not-a-Dadaist Marxist feminist and Bolshevik minister Alexandra Kollontai is still read.
“Dada doubts everything. Dada is an armadillo. Everything is Dada, too. Beware of Dada. Anti-dadaism is a disease: selfkleptomania, man's normal condition, is Dada. But the real dadas are against Dada.” Quote of Tristan Tzara, repr. in 'The Dada Painters and Poets', ed. Robert Motherwell (1951). Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love, sct. 7, La Vie des Lettres, no. 4, Paris (1921) – WikiPedia